Saturday 8 October 2011

Multilingual beginnings

One of the striking impressions I get from my dealings with language learning, language use and multilingualism is our tendency to look at what is not there. I don’t mean the commendable mindset that urges us to keep doing more and better because we know that we haven’t done our most and best yet, I mean the way we tend to disregard what is there.

I plead guilty too. When I took my firstborn to one of her routine check-ups, another 11-month-old, also a girl, was in the waiting room with her mum. This other girl was crawling all over the place at breathtaking speed, and grabbing at anything and anyone in sight to lift herself up and try to walk, whereas my girl, who had rehearsed a few half-hearted attempts at rolling and dragging herself on her tummy a few months earlier and soon given up, was doing what she did best at the time, which was sitting there on the floor and enjoying the show. My eyes glued to the little acrobat and I became instantly unsettled. What was wrong with my baby? Why wasn’t she moving at this late age?

I then noticed that the other mum was, in turn, staring at my girl, which added to my discomfort. She must be wondering about my motionless child too, so I decided to praise her child before she could condole with me about mine. “Sorry I’m staring”, I said, “but I couldn’t help noticing how active your girl is, compared to mine”. “Oh”, she replied, “thanks for telling me that! I was staring myself, at the impressive amount of teeth your girl has. Mine has none”. We had to laugh, both of us.

Informal observations like these are one thing. Quite another concerns official verdicts about our children’s development falling short of standard milestones, and this is no laughing matter. Take vocabulary, for example, the traditional tell-tale indicator of early linguistic health. If we assume that words reflect the first signs of linguistic development, then lack of words, or of a specific amount or type of words, means lack of expressive abilities. So much so that children who have yet to acquire words are said to be at the “pre-linguistic stage”. That is, these children don’t have language.

We’ve nevertheless known for quite a while that, prior to the appearance of words, babbling and babbling patterns provide reliable indicators of typical development. But descriptions of babbling often concern what analysts can recognise as syllables, vowels and consonants, that is, “word-like” baby utterances. Should we then look for words and word-like productions as evidence of the earliest linguistic resources that children have available? We might be looking in the wrong places, actually. Perhaps what wordless babies are said to lack, according to popular benchmarks, is instead what popular benchmarks themselves lack.

Take prosody, for example. For ages 5 and upwards, Sue Peppé and colleagues are currently developing an instrument for assessment of child prosody, PEPS-C (Profiling Elements of Prosodic Systems – Children), but our understanding of how very young children use the prosody of their languages has been most lacking. Yet we’ve also known for many years that children begin making sense of their languages by making sense of prosody, and I was thrilled to be able to confirm this in a study of my own children’s language development.

Before they had any recognisable words in any of their two home languages, Portuguese and Swedish, the children started using any sounds that they were able to produce as fillers, that is, as handy carriers of salient prosodic patterns of each of their languages. They also babbled things like blh-blh-blh (to be read in Portuguese, [bʎˈbʎbʎ], where ˈ indicates a stressed syllable) and hadda-hadda-hadda (ditto in Swedish, [hadahada ̏ hada], where  ̏  represents the so-called ‘double-accent’ of the language).

The children switched between these uses of their resources when addressing people whom they associated with each language, or when looking at pictures of them – as well as when talking to toys which they got from Portuguese or Swedish speakers and which, therefore, also “spoke” each of these languages. The baby-dialogues that they fashioned in this way sounded Portuguese or Swedish, because the prosody was Portuguese or Swedish. When the first words appeared, the children accommodated them to the linguistic melodies that they had by then mastered, and went on using their old prosodic strategies as replacement for words which they hadn’t yet learnt in one of their languages, or which for some reason failed them at some time or other. Just like all of us use fillers like thingamabob or what’s-its-name, for the same reasons.

These earliest linguistic resources were not “words” of either language, but the children were nevertheless using their two languages. I’ll have some more to say about multilingual child strategies for learning language in the next couple of posts. 

© MCF 2011

Next post: Children, toys, and languages. Saturday 15th October 2011.

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